It's not every day that one gets a chance to be on the front lines of filmmaking. Indie films seem to be buzzwords these days with many low-budget-yet-large-hearted films coming out in the last few years and winning acclaim. Whether there's an indie movement or a wave happening, is for the future to decide. What is indisputable is that filmmakers across the country are picking up their cameras and making their films the way they want, unhindered by monetary considerations.
So when I was offered an opportunity to work alongsideDevashish Makhija(Agli Baar,Taandav,El'ayichi,Abs nt,Rahim Murge Pe Mat Ro) on his upcoming film, I jumped on it. Here's a chance to see first-hand the mechanics of indie filmmaking in action. I have been embedded with the team, assisting him while also sharing my observations with you. The film is now in post-production and you can read all the earlier posts here.
An easy way to start any post on editing would be to open with a quote from the venerable master of the craft, Walter Murch. So here goes:
"Editing is not so much a putting together as it is a discovery of a path."
That, by definition, makes it a meandering process full of digressive walks down rabbit holes that reveal, in moments of dazzling clarity, the film you want to make. Yes, there was the script and the story it told but what you have in hand isn't necessarily what you set out to make. Most often, it's some mutated form of that and there's nothing you can do about it. What you can do, however, is forget everything that came before it and set anew on a journey to discover the "film" that lies hidden within the footage you've got home. And trust me, even if the footage is not what you'd wanted, there are many such films waiting to be unearthed from within it, only if you let the footage guide you.
That's probably the most important thing I've learnt from Chandra, our editor. Watching him and Makhija hack their way through the footage, chopping away scenes mercilessly—scenes that the team slogged over against all odds—has been a revealing experience.
Editing a film in 23 days is unheard of...
If the script was tight at 78 pages, the final cut is tighter still, with scenes worth around 20 script pages dumped by the wayside. Directors, they say, are in love with the material they've shot and understandably so, but Makhija has been oddly gleeful in chopping scenes out of the film.
"I don't really have a choice, do I? Given the timelines we've got, I have to be ruthless," says Makhija.
And ruthless he's been. Editing a 105 minute film out of nearly 900 minutes of footage in 23 straight days! That's not the line-up or first cut I am talking about, it is the final cut. That's four and a half minutes of final film every day of edit. That must be some sort of a record, although I don't think Makhija was aiming for it. It's not a desirable situation, but then as I've noted time and again in this series, what an indie filmmaker desires doesn't really matter.
Yes, there was the script and the story it told but what you have in hand isn't necessarily what you set out to make.
"It does get to you sometimes", says Makhija lowering his guard for once. "There's got to be another way, a better way of doing this."
The other way is how a lot of the other indie films get made. You raise as much money as you can and then go shoot your film. More often than not, a low budget shoot will end up with footage far from what the script intended. This is why the editing process is even more critical on indie films than it is on well-funded projects and why indie films usually have stretched out periods of post-production.
There are no easy answers here, as Makhija likes to keep reminding anyone who approaches him seeking advice on how to go about becoming a filmmaker. The almost incessant barrage of heartbreaks is the price you pay for finally watching your film take shape in front of your eyes. Even second hand, the experience of watching the film go from paper to the final cut has been a profound one.
I've watched with wonder as Chandra and Makhija found hidden subtexts where none had been planned for, with shock as they threw out scenes, radically altering the structure of the film, and with bemusement as they debated back and forth the relative merits of retaining or removing a shot.
As with every other department of filmmaking, Makhija's approach here too was collaborative. I doubt if there's any better way of doing it. Watching the two of them cram and jam together, I was reminded of the umpteen college projects that I sat through with friends the night before submissions. Only here the two of them did that for over a month.
Now that the final cut is locked, I feel like celebrating. But Makhija won't have any of that. Fourteen long years in the industry, with a career marked by multiple stops-and-starts, he's not given to premature celebrations.
"There's sound to be done", he reminds me. And then there's music and DI before the film is finally ready to be unveiled to the world. As they say in cricket, it isn't over till the last ball is bowled, so it is with a film. There's always something that can be done—a cut here, some sound there—to better the film.
"It will never be perfect but we've got to do the best we can. We owe that to ourselves, to the craft and to the audience," says Makhija.
If there's one thing I'll take back from my stint on this film, it's this approach to his craft that Makhija stands for. It's more than I'd bargained for. Not a bad trade at all.